Photo: WCC/Peter Prove

Photo: WCC/Peter Prove

A 12-person delegation representing churches and ecumenical bodies around the world met for an historic international ecumenical visit and meeting in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from 23 to 30 October.

The delegation was comprised of members and observers of the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula (EFK), a network of churches, national councils of churches, mission organizations and church-related development agencies, including the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) in the DPRK and the National Council of Churches in the Republic of Korea (NCCK), and moderated by the World Council of Churches (WCC). The EFK was launched at a first meeting in Hong Kong on 8 December 2006.

During the delegation visit to the DPRK, a formal full-day EFK meeting was convened in Pyongyang on 28 October, the first time an international ecumenical gathering of this nature was able to meet on Korean soil – North or South – with the official participation of both the KCF and NCCK.

Heading the delegation was Rev. Dr Chang Sang, WCC president for Asia and former prime minister of the Republic of Korea. Chang is a former senior advisor to the Reunification Committee of the Republic of Korea government.

Peter Prove, director of WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, who also participated in the delegation, serves as moderator of the EFK steering group.  Prove commended the efforts of the KCF in bringing the discussion of peace and reunification to Korean soil. “Members of the delegation appreciated the opportunity to renew and deepen their relationship with the representatives of the KCF,” he said.

Other delegation members included Rev. Dr Kim Young Ju, general secretary of the NCCK; Rev. Shin Seung-Min (NCCK); Bishop Jung Hee Soo of the United Methodist Church USA and President of the United Methodist Committee on Relief; Rev. Lim Choon Shik, Presbyterian Church USA; Steven Pearce, Methodist Church UK; Alexander Sneddon, Church of Scotland; Lutz Drescher, Evangelische Mission in Solidarität, Germany; Erich Weingartner, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and founding head of the Food Aid Liaison Unit of the World Food Programme (1997-1999); Park Kyung Seo, who served as South Korean ambassador-at-large for human rights from 2001 to 2006; and Rev. Dr Kim Dong-Sung, WCC programme executive.

Conversations cover wide range of issues

The delegation’s travels and conversations within the DPRK centred on peace and reunification, which in turn sparked dialogue related to a wide range of other issues, said Weingartner. “It is our hope that ecumenical engagement for peace on the Korean Peninsula will resume in earnest after two decades dominated by political and military conflict and recrimination,” he said. “This is an urgent task that cannot be resolved by North and South Koreans alone. It requires renewed accompaniment by churches worldwide.”

Among those members of the delegation with long experience of the DPRK, Ambassador Park Kyung Seo said  “I was greatly impressed that despite draconian sanctions imposed against the DPRK, there are signs of progress and development in the improvement of infrastructure and economic activity, and in the apparent health of the people.”

The delegation attended Sunday worship on 25 October at the Bongsu Church in Pyongyang. The church is one of two physical church buildings belonging to the KCF in the DPRK. Also in Pyongyang, the delegation visited the Chilgol Church, which was rebuilt on the site of a church dating back to the 1890s. Kang Ban Sok, mother of North Korea's founding president Kim Il Sung, was a member of this church.

Most of the KCF’s constituents worship in house churches, and the delegation also met with one such house church group, in addition to visiting the Jangchung Catholic Church.

The social service functions of the KCF were a key interest of the visiting delegation. Among other such functions, they visited the Bongsu bakery operated by the KCF, which provides nutritionally-enhanced bread products to children’s hospitals, kindergartens and orphanages.

Conversations with government officials and academics offered further occasion for reflection on the challenges and opportunities of reducing tensions and promoting confidence-building and reconciliation in the short-term, and of securing peace in the intermediate term. The delegation met with Kim Yong Dae, vice-president of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They also received a presentation by and engaged in discussion with Mr Park Yong Chol, vice-president of the National Reunification Institute.

Another visit was made to the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, North Korea's first privately funded university, founded by Dr James Chin-Kyung Kim, a Korean-American Christian entrepreneur.

As part of it’s week-long programme in the DPRK, the delegation was able to travel outside the capital city of Pyongyang, south to the city of Kaesong - and the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom – and north to Hyangsan.

Group issues Pyongyang Appeal

On 28 October, the participants issued the “Pyongyang Appeal”, a document that urges all churches, church-related organizations and people of good will around the world to join the call for reunification with renewed and strengthened solidarity and advocacy.

Among other actions, the appeal calls for an end to all joint military exercises in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula directed against the DPRK; lifting the economic sanctions against the DPRK; resisting the confrontational misuse of human rights; replacing the current Armistice Agreement of 1953 with a peace treaty; and supporting a respectful, patient and persistent dialogue between the two Koreas.

“The key concern of the members of our delegation in visiting the DPRK and in issuing this appeal”, stressed Dr Chang Sang, “was to encourage dialogue and mutual exchange in order to reduce tensions and antagonism, and to seek the realization of human rights through the promotion of peace and reconciliation. I pray that churches around the world will join the churches of the Korean peninsula in this pilgrimage of justice and peace.”

Read also: Reflections on a visit to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Peter Prove, director of WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs

Pyongyang Appeal by the EFK steering group

More about the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula

BBC report on Pyongyang University of Science and Technology

Seeking Peace: the World Council of Churches and the Korean Peninsula

WCC expresses concern over escalating tensions on Korean peninsula

WCC invites churches to pray for peace and reunification of the Korean peninsula